Our God is a generous God, and generosity is one of the marks of God’s people. What do I mean by generosity? The dictionary defines “generosity” as “liberality in giving or willingness to give.” (American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition.)
Now you might be thinking that this is starting out sounding a lot like a stewardship sermon. And you wouldn’t be far wrong, but there’s no campaign or solicitation attached to this sermon, just a reminder of what it means to be a generous people who have a generous God.
Generosity is closely related to the word grace, which is a gift given without any merit on behalf of the recipient of the gift, and without any thought of reward for giving the gift. I would like to suggest that generosity is one of those necessary things, without which a family, a church, a community, indeed a society, cannot flourish.
In today’s Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul is admonishing the Corinthians to generosity in a special offering they are taking for the Jerusalem church. A little background is helpful here.
In Acts 11: 29-30 it is reported that Paul and Barnabas delivered to the Jerusalem leaders a donation from Antioch for service to the Christians living in Judea. A half dozen years later a collection for Jerusalem has become a major concern of Paul’s missionary career. The Galatian churches and the Corinthians were told to set aside a certain amount of money on the first day of every week when they gather for worship, and in this reading, we hear of Paul canvassing Macedonia and Achaia.
We catch a glimpse here of what we might call early Christian philanthropy. Paul certainly didn’t invent philanthropy or concern for the poor. Such generosity was part of the Jewish tradition out of which Paul comes. For example, Psalm 112: 9 says “he has distributed freely, he was given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn Is exalted in honor.”
And, certainly Jesus himself taught generosity. His grace extended especially to those in need, as we see in the two dramatic healing stories we have in today’s gospel.
Keep in mind that the woman Jesus healed was untouchable according to the Law. She was ritually unclean because of her chronic bleeding, and when she touched Jesus’s cloak it should have made him ritually unclean. Instead, she was healed. That’s the topsy-turvy values of the Kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and the last first, the proud shall be humbled and the humble exalted.
Because Jesus comes not for the rich and well-born, but for the poor, the sick, the needy, and those without power and privilege to protect them.
Sometimes, in our time, when social policy is discussed, you hear loose talk about “the undeserving poor.” For Jesus, there are no undeserving poor. In the divine economy, we are all undeserving, because for Jesus, as with the one he calls Father, it is all about grace, which by definition comes without strings or qualifications.
Paul’s argument to the Corinthians is simple enough. One should be generous with one’s abundance, because it is by God’s generosity that one has abundance. More specifically, God’s generosity is shown in his humbling himself to put on our human life in the man Jesus, and to die to take away our sins. This generous act of saving humility is actually what makes Jesus “Lord,” as the humbled one who becomes the exalted one. In other words, such lavish generosity is central to the very identity of God.
So, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The word in Greek that is translated as “generous act” is usually rendered into English as “grace.” Christians have been the recipient of grace, a free gift out of God’s abundant generosity.
Paul then makes the sale to the Corinthians: “if the eagerness to make a gift is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”
There are two good principles of Christian giving in there. First, each of us doesn’t have to do it all, just our part. We are not God, and God doesn’t want our liberality to create a need in us. So there needs to be a balance.
Secondly, it is the relationship between our abundance and others needs that helps us determine our giving. Paul indicates that someday our need may be met by another’s abundance. This is not the leveling down of communism, rather it is the mutuality of true community where the others’ needs have a claim on my abundance.
This, of course, is contrary to our culture of consumerism, where there are neither any limits to my abundance, and no claims upon them. You may have seen the bumper sticker: “the one with the most toys wins!” That should give us pause.
The life of any society small or large is not a zero-sum game. My winning does not depend on others losing. My thriving does not count on others not thriving. Any social unit, be it a community, a society, a church, or a family needs generosity to properly function.
Without generosity human selfishness is not softened and it becomes “every man for himself.” We’ve seen income inequality in our country widen dramatically in recent years, the rich getting richer and richer, while wages stay the same. This wealth gap is not healthy for our common life. Indeed, it is toxic. And it is certainly not Christian.
What is the opposite of the open hand of giving? It is the closed fist of grasping. The grasping impulse feeds on itself, driving the individual more and more into isolation. James Baldwin wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time)
But giving generously is both freeing and energizing. Let me share an example. I served in my last pastorate for twenty-two years, and in that time, our congregation had three capital fund campaigns. Each time we learned how empowering and liberating true generosity is. Each campaign created new vision and energy in our life together. It strengthened our community as we gave to and beyond our community.
And you have just been through a capital fund campaign to raise money to renovate your meeting house, Project Welcome, to make your building more accessible and welcoming.
And how good do you feel about that? Pretty good I’m guessing. Your generosity is good for you, good for your congregation, and good for your community. As the New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, has written about our lesson today, “Both psychologically and practically there are few things in life that bond together people and institutions more effectively than sharing their bank accounts. (Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament.)
Both the generous church and the generous Christian are happier and healthier than their frightened, cautious counterparts, for in their generosity they participate in the very nature and identity of the generous God, who in Jesus Christ gave himself for us, that we might have life and have it in abundance. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sake’s he became poor, that by his poverty, you might become rich.” Amen.
(I preached this virtual sermon on June 27, 2021, at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI. To see the whole worship service on YouTube go here.)